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Pussy Riot at Meltdown

20/06/2013 18:00 BST | Updated 20/08/2013 10:12 BST

This past weekend during Yoko Ono's Meltdown festival, I sat down to discuss with Emely Neu her recent curatorial project and text, Let's Start a Pussy Riot (Rough Trade, 2012). Neu shares with me her work with Pussy Riot and talks about the perpetually changing definitions and performances of activism and artistic practices.

Neu: I am the curator of the book Let's Start a Pussy Riot. Last year, after the girls of Pussy Riot got arrested I approached three London-based feminist collectives--Storm in a Teacup, Girls Get Busy and the creative collective Not So Popular--to team up and get a fund raiser going for the girls. And so in one and a half weeks, we organised a mini-festival with Viv Albertine headlining and we raised some money. Back then the media covered it but it wasn't that sort of HUGE coverage that started when the trial began. And so we had the idea to create a zine to create awareness and to raise money for the girls. But the idea of a zine actually turned into a book.

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Cover to Let's Start a Pussy Riot (2012)

When the trial started we started a website called "Let's Start a Pussy Riot" for which we asked the general public to send us responses to the case, but creative responses. So they could be anything from poems to paintings to collages and we published them all on the blog. We had really great responses! And then that sort of concept of really engaged and moved into a dialogue about Pussy Riot beginning with those themes they stood up for like: LGBT rights, feminism, power of collaboration, freedom of speech, environmental activism.

Vigo: So this is what the actual members of Pussy Riot fought for and this wasn't just a media construction? As you know, media often depicts an image that is not reality and then it spins this image which in turn becomes co-opted as 'real.'

Neu: Yes, this is what they stood up for--even many of the members protested individually, such as Nadia's [Nadezhda Tolokonnikova] history of protesting. So we thought we would take this as the core of the book. And then last year I went to see seven shows at Antony's Meltdown Festival because I reviewed it for a German music magazine. I was so inspired by his take on 'Future Feminism,' I thought I wanted this to be very present in the book. We didn't really have any existing contacts for the book. So we chose the artists we wanted for this and we just approached them. And we kept approaching them. Then we took the concept to Rough Trade Records. It is really unusual for a book to go to a record company and they have actually published a book in the past. With their history and what they stand for we thought the that this would be the perfect match. So we went there and they were incredible. They just gave us all the freedom. I think this project really needs freedom because if you give this into the wrong hands it could easily be turned into something commercial or covered with a balaclava to sell better. But that's not what it's about at all. So, I stayed on with 'Free Pussy Riot' since last March and worked on this book together with the girls from Pussy Riot. The first chapter gives you an overview of the case including the court statements which were kindly donated to us by Feminist Press. They donated their translations to us that have appeared in the textbook they published. The girls have also written a manifesto of Pussy Riot and a history of Pussy Riot. We also have a conversation conversation between Charlotte Richardson Andrews and Kerry McCarthy in the first chapter. The Second Chapter starts with Kembra Pfahler from the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black giving an introduction which is a very personal letter which shows the tone of the book, it is all very personal. And then you have nearly 70 artists including Yoko Ono, Robyn, Jón Gnarr Mayor Reykjavik, Judy Chicago, Kara Walker, The Knife, and so many people.

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Baby Girl by Bianca Casady (2102)

Vigo: How did you decide on your collaborators? For instance, not everyone was a woman necessarily and yet this text pivots from a feminist exploration of human rights.

Neu: The book has different themes and strands. So first we chose the themes that Pussy Riot stands for and alongside these themes I looked at which artists could I approach. Also I had to take 'Future Feminism' into account. It was important for me to look for activists who are out there on their own, for example, Fox who appeared on My Transexual Summer and Fox keeps sharing his personal story on Youtube which is incredibly brave. He also started a documentary project, My Genderation. Also there is Finnish director, Elias Koskimies, who after gay propaganda was banned in Russia he made a reaction to that in St Petersburg. He made the short film we saw earlier.

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Elias Koskimies, I've Only Just Begun (2012)

These people are just incredible. They just get up and do their thing--it is not about making money, it's not about selling something. It is really and truly about what they believe and making a change. So we've got these personal activist voices in there as well as well as new talent. We also have pieces, for example by Yoko Ono, 'Hell in Paradise,'which gets recontextualised in this. It is a lot about opening up the dialogue with each other. When we say 'feminism' we also mean men and women in all shades. And we also mean that you should define it for yourself. I mean the number of times I heard that feminism is something that existed in history, never in the present.

Vigo: That is the problem really. I have never considered myself a feminist because I believe in human rights, so perhaps it is the word I dislike which specifies one sex and not the other. In a sense, when you work on women's rights you are necessarily also helping men and children--all of society--because everything is connected, no?

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Your Face Here: Some Living Women Artist/Last Supper, 2013, by Mary Beth Edelson

Neu: It is all about interpretations right? Some people don't even create work because they don't feel like they are an artist because they define 'artist' in such a way that they do not identify with that title saying, 'Uh I am not an artist, why should I creatively respond.' I don't think people should shy away from feminism, they should get involved. I had this conversation with someone the other day who told me, 'I think people should call themselves a feminist when they know ALL the texts from academia.' Oh, come on! Fuck that, you know! You're a woman, you're a man, you're a human and you can respond to your surroundings in your own life.